World news – AU – Sutton tells inquiry he would have preferred to be state controller


Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has told the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry he believes he should have been given the position of state controller during the pandemic so he could properly oversee the implementation of directives he was responsible for.

Last week the COVID-19 Hotel Quarantine Inquiry heard Government officials did not appoint Professor Sutton to the position of state controller, even though he wanted to take on the role.

The state controller is responsible for cross-department planning, logistics and communications support in public health crises.

Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) deputy secretary Melissa Skilbeck made the decision not to appoint Professor Sutton to the position in February. She told the inquiry she thought it should be given to someone who had more time and expertise to manage logistics.

When asked about the decision today, Professor Sutton said he held the view that as the Chief Health Officer responsible for issuing mandatory health directives, he should have had « line of sight of operational elements ».

« As Chief Health Officer, and accountable with all of the powers that I’m exercising under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, [I held the view] that it’s important for me to have line of sight of the application of those controls, » he said.

Professor Sutton said Emergency Management Victoria’s (EMV) Andrea Spiteri, who was jointly appointed to the state controller position with Jason Helps, was an « excellent leader » who held some health expertise.

« With respect to a pandemic specifically, I do have a view that a public health physician with communicable disease experience and tropical medicine experience and the specific qualifications and experience that I have, is a not inappropriate appointment to the state controller position, for sure, » he said.

« That’s a very cautious way to say it, ‘not inappropriate’ — it’s preferable, isn’t it? » counsel assisting Ben Ihle asked.

Earlier, the inquiry heard Professor Sutton was not responsible for overseeing compliance within the state’s hotel quarantine program.

Professor Sutton told today’s hearing his public health team provided advice and directions on personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning policies for the hotels.

But he said once the advice was provided to the massive bureaucratic taskforce, which he referred to as a « large beast », his team was unaware about whether the directions were actually being followed.

« Is it fair to say that [your team] doesn’t have oversight of how they’re [health directions] being proliferated and complied with? » Mr Ihle asked.

Professor Sutton said his team was responsible for advice on how PPE, cleaning and hygiene should be observed across « innumerable settings » across the state.

Professor Sutton also told the hearing that his office decided not to use sections of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act that can compel individuals to be tested.

The act can also prohibit « particular activities » and force people to quarantine, irrespective of whether a public health emergency is declared by the State Government.

Professor Sutton said he did not consider them, explaining that the rules usually applied to certain individuals for diseases like hepatitis.

He also told the inquiry key sections of his public health team felt it was unnecessary.

« There haven’t been cases … where they felt such coercive powers would be beneficial to them, » he said.

Professor Sutton conceded testing at the hotels could have been strengthened, given it was never made mandatory.

He said he knew of one person in quarantine who tested positive to the virus after leaving the Stamford Plaza hotel and then infected the person who drove them home.

« If you want to make [hotel quarantine] robust as possible, making more stringent requirements for testing is a reasonable consideration, » he said.

Asked whether it was possible people had left hotel quarantine with the virus, he answered: « That is potentially the case, they would have been questioned on the basis of their symptoms and would have declared that they were symptom-free.

« Part of the reflection on strengthening the testing regimen in hotel quarantine is for that very purpose. »

In his statement to the inquiry, Professor Sutton said he « did not have a view » about the use of security companies in the hotel quarantine program.

« I did not know that security guards were used until after the outbreaks, » he said.

« Following the outbreaks, in June 2020, I raised with the COVID-19 Accommodation Commander whether there were alternatives to using security contractors as they posed some transmission risk. I also raised the idea of routine symptomatic testing.

« I was informed that alternative workforce models were being considered in addition to increased training of security guards, which I understand happened.

« With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that using a highly casualised workforce, generally from a lower socio-economic background … where that means that poor leave provisions limit how one can care for and financially support one’s family if unwell.

« In addition, where many of these staff might combine multiple, piecemeal jobs across different industries to maintain an adequate income, creating transmission risk. »

Professor Sutton noted in his statement that the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) did not agree returned travellers should be forced into quarantine in hotels.

« As discussed, prior to National Cabinet’s announcement on 26 March 2020, the AHPPC did not endorse the idea of quarantining travellers at hotels (or other designated facilities), » Professor Sutton wrote.

Professor Sutton said he did not know Prime Minister Scott Morrison would announce the program after National Cabinet on March 26, despite Mr Morrison telling journalists the decision was based on public health advice.

But the Chief Health Officer said he took the Prime Minister on « face value » and believed his statements were true.

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard Emergency Management Victoria Commissioner Andrew Crisp did not believe Australian Defence Force troops were needed to support the hotel quarantine program.

This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.

AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)


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